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DAWN The Review, May 4-11, 2000

Primary Historical Sources

While the modern historian writes with the arrogance of his or her academic position, the ancient chronicler used to wield their pen with the frankness of a storyteller. A chronicler in the good old times wasn't bothered with the complexities that bog down the modern histories and make them too hard to be cracked by an unassuming reader.

There are three fallacies about primary sources. Firstly, that the writers didn't tell the truth. Well, if they didn't, then from where on earth did our modern historian get it? The version of those ancient historians forms the bulk of what is there to rely on. If we take a good, hard look at primary sources, we find them more bold and honest than their modern counterparts.

The second fallacy is that primary sources are difficult to read, simply because they were written in a different age. This is not true because the mediaeval (or ancient) historian didn't write for 'experts.' A cursory look at any of the books listed below is all we need to see whilst establishing that the mediaeval historians were driven by a desire to hold the interest of their readers, while the modern experts are moved by the need to confuse their colleagues.

The third fallacy is that modern books enable us to see historic events in the perspective of our own times as compared to the primary sources written several centuries ago. This is wrong, because any modern historian at best may only present events in the perspective of his or her own understanding.

Primary sources offer readers an opportunity to conduct a first hand examination and then compare it with her or his times to develop a personal perspective. The little help that maybe needed for this is always there in the footnotes in any quality translation of an old book.

Here is an introduction to some of the most interesting primary sources on the mediaeval history of Muslim India.

Tabqat-i-Nasiri by Minhaj-i-Siraj

In the traditional manner of Muslim historians, the history opens with the creation of Adam and traces the events briefly up to the times of the historian himself, which were the early days of the Delhi Empire. Minhaj-i-Siraj was a scholar from the time of Altutmush, who received the office of Qazi by Sultan Razia herself. He carried on successfully through the times of Nasiruddin Mahmood, and died some time after the accession of Bulbun. His book is a meticulous record of the events he witnessed as a close ally of most of these rulers, and contains useful chapters on the notable personalities of the era. They include poets, politicians, scholars and soldiers. This is the primary source on the exciting history of the Slave Dynasty.

Tarikh-i-Firuz Shahi by Ziauddin Burni

The author was a companion of such legendary figures of his day as Nizamuddin Auliya and Ameer Khusro. His worldly ambition kept him closer to the court than to the monastery, but his unique history reflects an insight that is a synthesis of the two worldviews. He broke away from the tradition of earlier historians like Minhaj, who opened their books at the beginning of the world. He frankly acknowledged that the book of Minhaj was there for anyone who wished to be informed about the earlier days, and therefore opened straight at the point where Minhaj had left: the later days of Bulbun.

His book is the most vivid record of the brutal overthrow of the slave dynasty at the hand of the ruthless Khiljis and our major source of information on Allauddin Khilji, the greatest ruler of the Delhi Sultunate. Like all ancient historians, Burni adds interesting anecdotes from the everyday life of his heroes, bringing them to life in a manner that is alien to the dry reductionism of modern historians. Much of the enigma that embodied Mohammad Tughlaq, the second ruler of the Tughlaq Dynasty, would have been lost if Burni had not captured the anguish of that confused scholar with a depth for characterization that reminds us of Macbeth. He lived up to the days of Firuz Shah Tughlaq, after whom he named his book.

Tuzuk-i-Babri by Babur

Being the diary of a Piscean (Babur was born on Feb 24), this one is simply beyond comparison with any other mediaeval autobiography for its frankness, depth and honesty. The first ruler of the Mughal empire began his life as an orphaned prince at the age of 14, exiled and hunted by his relatives turned worst enemies. He saw the worst humiliations and failures as well as unsurpassed glory. A poet in two languages, he sets out to write down the unexpurgated account of his life in this unique masterpiece of Turkish prose. It has it all: from the night raids on villages stealing chickens for dinner, to the setting up of one of the greatest empires in history. Babur's integrity as a writer is unassailable. In case of discrepancy between Babur's own account and that of another historian, even the modern historian treats Babur's own version more reliable as a rule.

Humayun Namah by Gulbadan Begum

Gulbadan was Humayun's sister and accompanied him on all his exploits, including his many years of hardship in exile. She compiled this account on the request of her nephew, Akbar the Great, who was keen that the turbulent years of his father's tragic life be recorded for all times. In addition to fulfilling that purpose, Gulbadan also provides certain interesting details of the life in the women's quarters in those early Mughal days. Where Humayun failed to live up to the image of his father as an empire-builder, his sister did live up to their father's image as a chronicler.

Muntakhibul Libab by Khafi Khan

This is probably one of the most colourful and readable among all histories from the mediaeval times. Khafi Khan's father was a servant in the company of Prince Murad, one of Shah Jehan's sons who was treacherously put to death by his own brother Aurangzeb. Quite predictably, Khafi Khan's history, written safely after the end of Aurangzeb's regime, provides an unceremonious account of the self-righteous Mughal. Khafi Khan writes with a skeptical impartiality for everyone involved except his father's boss Prince Murad - who was, thankfully, a minor character and does not occupy more than a few pages in the book. The glorious emperors are all presented here in their 'new clothes'.

In this book, one finds a grand Aurangzeb admitting his helplessness over a corrupt bureaucracy, while some accounts of the activities of his incapable descendants are simply too funny to find a place in any modern history. One such event is the nocturnal escapade of a Mughal king who ends up in a bullock cart (with a dubious partner), all too tipsy to care where they are!Khafi Khan has everything that makes his work interesting reading. Since this is intended to be a history of the Mughal Empire from the beginning, Khafi Khan gives an outline of the whole dynasty. Here again, he doesn't rely on the written history alone but also puts down oral traditions that would have been lost forever if he had not recorded them for posterity. This includes the famous romance of Prince Saleem and Mehrunnisa (Jehangir and Nur Jahan), which was probably recorded here for the first time.

Nishan-i-Haideri by Mir Hussain Ali Kirmani

The sons of Tipu Sultan commissioned this book after their ancestral kingdom was gone. The author records the story of Haider Ali and his illustrious son Tipu, both of whom he had personally served as a courtier. He doesn't shrink from recording anything that he believes to be true - be it a glorious exploit or a shameless act of rape committed by a hero. Here we have it all, including some down-to-earth anecdotes such as the incident when the person in charge of Haider Ali's mint asked him what image was to be stamped on a new coin, and took him too literally when he swore back in anger. The meaning of the 'four-lettered' word uttered by his majesty was translated into a picture by the mint's engraver and the ignoble coin went into circulation before Haider Ali found out and ordered all copies to be melted down in the furnace!

Primary sources offer readers an opportunity to conduct a first hand examination and then compare it with her or his times to develop a personal perspective.

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